Braga bring the curtain down on a historic campaign on Wednesday when they face Portuguese rivals FC Porto in the final of the Europa League, and it will be the fifty second game of a season that began back in July. The Europa League, formerly the UEFA Cup, is nothing new to Braga; this is their seventh consecutive season in the competition, but they began it in the Champions League having finished second in Primeira Liga for the first time, excelling under the stewardship of Domingos Jose Paciencia Oliveira.
A 3-0 win over Celtic in a Champions League qualifier at Estadio Municipal de Braga (their intimidating stadium that is carved into the face of the adjacent Monte Castro quarry), followed by a narrow defeat in Scotland ensured another qualifying tie with Sevilla. A 1-0 victory at home paved the way for a thriller in Spain with Braga recording a 4-3 victory that included a second half hat-trick from substitute Lima, earning a place amongst the elite – grouped with Arsenal, Shakhtar Donesk and Partizan Belgrade.
Braga have close ties with Arsenal, changing their original green and white kit to mirror that of the North Londoners, giving birth to their nickname the ‘Arsenalistas’. The current Braga side are also stylistically similar, sharing the same attacking ethos. When the two sides faced each, Braga were on the wrong end of a six goal humbling, although they avenged the defeat with a 2-0 victory in the return leg. Two wins over Partizan and a couple of defeats at the hands of Shakhtar were enough to secure third place in the group and passage to the more familiar territory of the Europa League. Lech Poznan were disposed of to earn a glamour tie with Liverpool. Braga took a 1-0 lead to Anfield and dug in to record a 0-0 draw and a quarter final place for the first time. A pair of draws with Dynamo Kiev earned victory on away goals and an all-Portuguese semi final with Benfica, where an away goal would again prove decisive, as a 2-1 defeat in Lisbon and a nail-biting 1-0 home win set up a dream final with the dominant force in Portugal.
In a league containing 144 registered Brazilian players, Braga’s squad is roughly a 50/50 split between Portuguese and South Americans; subduing Porto’s South Americans will go a long way towards deciding the Dublin showpiece. Fresh from an 8-3 aggregate win over Villarreal in their semi-final, Falcao has already plundered 16 goals – a new competition record – assisted by the powerful, muscular presence of Hulk. Having already beaten them twice in the league, they ended the season a massive 35 points ahead of Braga in an unbeaten domestic campaign, who recorded only 13 wins from 29 games – their league form bearing the strain of competing on so many fronts.
If Braga are to upset the odds, they will need to utilise the pace of Lima, Paulo Cesar and Alan on the counterattack, as they lack a focal point in attack since losing Matheus to Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in January. With Domingos Paciencia standing down at the end of the season, Braga will want to send him off in style, but it will take a monumental effort to see off the Portuguese ‘invincibles’.